NEW YORK (AP) — Rob Manfred wants Major League Baseball to be in position to take the field whenever government and health officials give the go-ahead.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to turn over every stone to try to play the game in 2020 if there’s any way we can in the environment,” the baseball commissioner said Wednesday during an interview with The Associated Press.
Spring training was suspended March 12 because of the new coronavirus pandemic and the season’s scheduled start on March 26 delayed. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all gatherings of 50 people or more be put off through mid-May.
Among the plans baseball is investigating is basing all 30 teams in the Phoenix area and using the 10 spring training ballparks there, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and possibly college facilities. Games would be played in empty stadiums; players, staff and broadcast crews and technicians would be kept in controlled environments, such as ballparks, hotels and MLB-arranged transport.
“We have tried to be cautious about trying to go too soon, based on what the public health situation is,” Manfred said during a telephone interview from his home in Jupiter, Florida. “For people to be out there saying we’re not going to have any sports in 2020, I think that’s going the other way. I think we all need, no matter what your predilection is, to wait for the situation to unfold more, give us more information and then make realistic decisions about what’s possible.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, endorsed a plan along the lines of the Arizona option during an interview Wednesday with Snapchat.
“Nobody comes to the stadium. Put them in big hotels, wherever you want to play. Keep them very well surveilled,” Fauci said. “Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”
Arizona’s advantages include numerous hotels, including at least eight in the Phoenix area with 425 rooms or more. About 3,000 people likely would need to be tested regularly, including players, club staff, umpires and the broadcast contingent.
There is no deadline for a decision, and if the health situation dictates baseball could even start in the fall and take advantage of warm weather in the Phoenix area.
“The threshold question is the health question, and that’s where we’re spending the most time,” Manfred said.
In addition to the CDC guideline, many state and local governments have banned public events. MLB will wait to decide its course because the biggest issues are medical, not logistical or economic.
“The ones that are the most worrisome are the ones that are beyond our control,” Manfred said. “Right now most of the places where we would play would not be allowable under the regulations that are currently in place, so obviously, those are the ones that concern me the most. How long do those go on?”
MLB and the players’ association reached an agreement in which the teams are advancing $170 million of $4 billion in salaries through May 24 in exchange for players giving up claims to the remainder of their salaries and receiving full service time if the season is scrapped.
Manfred said about 40% of operating revenue derives from gate and gate-related areas, such as luxury suite rentals, concessions, parking, signage, and program sales and advertising. Going forward with a plan to play in empty stadiums likely would lead to another negotiation with the union, led by former All-Star first baseman Tony Clark.
While some players may be reluctant to sequester in Arizona, it might be the only path to salaries that run from $3,478 per game at the minimum to $222,222 for Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole.
“My job is to figure out the best possible way to play baseball when we know more about the surrounding environment,” Manfred said. “We’re going to have to go to Tony, and it’s his job to figure out what the players want to do.”
There has been little discussion on innovations such as doubleheaders with seven-inning games, extending the designated hitter to the National League, deciding extra-inning games with a home run derby and expanding the playoffs, all subject to bargaining with the union. Manfred terms those issues “a laundry list you’ll consider at the point you’re ready to make decisions.”
He has gotten into a routine of regular conference calls among his constituents: controlling owners on Mondays, general managers on Tuesdays, team presidents on Wednesdays and the MLB executive council on Thursdays.
MLB senior staff has taken pay cuts, and budget slashing has allowed the central office to say it will continue to pay its roughly 1,200 full-time and part-time employees through May. Some teams have taken similar stances with their administrative staff.
“I think the clubs have been phenomenal about making every effort to continue some economic support for everybody who makes a living off baseball, broadly defined.” he said.
Manfred is proud of the MLB staff efforts. He said the hit to revenue will go beyond this year.
“There’s no question that what’s going on now will have an impact on ’21,” he said.